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UBC Reports | Vol. 48 | No. 12 | Oct. 10, 2002

Eureka Moments in Research

When the light goes on

By Brian Lin

Legend goes that when Archimedes discovered how to measure the volume of an irregular solid and thereby determine the purity of a gold object, he jumped out of the bathtub, running into the street, buck naked, yelling “Eureka! I have found it.”

While slightly less dramatic, some UBC researchers’ eureka moments are no less inspiring.

“For me it happened at about 3 a.m. when I was feeding my niece,” remembers Pharmaceutical Sciences Assoc. Prof. Kishor Wasan, who was doing research on how hydrophobic drugs interact with plasma lipoproteins. “I noticed how the baby was sucking on the nipple, in a sort of pursed lip motion, and it hit me that the drugs partition the lipoproteins in a pursed movement. The next morning, I woke up and read my notes and was delighted that it wasn’t gibberish. It actually made sense.”

For VP Research Indira Samarasekera, whose area of research is continuous casting of steel, a baffling moment quickly turned into an unexpected discovery when she realized that not only was the shape of the mould important but the dynamic interaction with the newly solidifying shell was a factor, too.

“The results were exactly opposite to our predictions based on the shape of the mould alone,” recalls Samarasekera. “But we tested the new theory and it paved the way for a set of changes in the design and operation of continuous casting moulds that led to quality improvements.”

Physics and Astronomy Assoc. Prof. Jaymie Matthews’ eureka moment consisted of absolutely nothing.

“My colleagues and I had completed an ambitious program to monitor the subtle brightness variations of a rapidly pulsating magnetic star in a remote observatory in the Andes Mountains of northern Chile in 1989,” says Matthews.

“We used two telescopes simultaneously to capture the star’s radiation both in visible and infrared light,” Matthews explains. “In our visible-light observations, we were rewarded with the expected signal.”

“In the infrared, we saw - to use a technical term - diddly-squat.”

“It’s been almost 13 years since those observations,” says Matthews. “Last month, I reviewed a South African PhD student’s thesis, which was inspired entirely by that null result. In this case, finding nothing was one of the most satisfying discoveries we could have ever hoped to make.”

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Last reviewed 22-Sep-2006

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